“Prepare to be challenged beyond your comfort zone,” says one Amazon review of Philip Jenkins’ new “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died.” The reviewer continues: “This is an astounding book.”
Half way through Jenkins’ latest book about the “lost” shape of global religion, I found myself heaping similar superlatives on it. I said to one good friend: “Listen, I don’t usually push books on you, but you’ve just got to read the latest by Philip Jenkins. It’ll completely re-frame what you think you know about the shape of Christianity — and the meaning of orthodoxy. Christianity has been a whole lot bigger than most of us assume.”
I found myself verbally pushing this book among friends until I finally bumped into church consultant Dr. Alfred Bamsey yesterday. He has been a guest here at ReadTheSpirit in the past. I know he loves to read. So, I started raving about Jenkins’ new book again — until Dr. Bamsey raised his palm to cut me off. “Already reading it,” he said. “Jenkins is amazing! How does this guy write so many surprising books about so many areas of religious life?”
In earlier ReadTheSpirit stories, I have recommended other Jenkins books, including: “The Next Christendom,” about the transformation of the faith in the Southern Hemisphere today; “God’s Continent,” in which he argues that Europe need not fear Muslim immigration; and “Dream Catchers,” about the complex interplay between Native American spirituality and mainstream American culture.
Each of his books holds surprises for readers, but none will be as stunning to general readers as this new tour of Christian realms most Americans never even imagine existed. The main illustration on the front cover of his book, which looks like a boat propeller, is actually the map of Christianity that existed for a thousand years with Jerusalem at the center — and the Western church relegated to a single blade in the upper left corner.
Contrary to the popular American impression that churches now are freshly evangelizing Africa and Asia, Jenkins points out that Christianity thrived there — sometimes more vigorously, more beautifully and at more sophisticated theological levels — than in the back waters of Europe during the so-called Dark Ages. Those once-vast, once-thriving Asian and African churches virtually died out before what we Westerners call the Reformation. But the truth of this map is that “The Church” once was far larger than most of us imagine — and the notion of orthodoxy we like to argue about so frequently once was far broader than the European church.
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION:
DAVID: The startling revelation in this book for most readers is that Christianity is far, far larger than we ever realized. Our widespread assumption that Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Europe and Rome – then branched into Protestantism – with some exotic national churches left that call themselves Orthodox – is flat-out wrong. Our own Western story of Christianity turns out to be only one of the three petals in the blossom of Christianity. You point out in your book that a lot of other authors about Christianity don’t understand this key point. Why did we forget this history so completely?
PHILIP: One big problem is that people tend to think visually. They think in maps and they have an assumed model of what that map should look like. It’s a map of the expansion of Christianity and it is usually a map of Europe. Do you know the phrase: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes? Well that’s how it is with our common view of Christianity.
Another big problem is that we have this present-ist view of things. The way we see the world at present is all that matters. Why look at churches that didn’t succeed and survive until today? Many of the great churches of Africa and Asia died out centuries ago. But I’m pointing out that they lived for a long time, in some cases 1,000 years, and we need to learn from them. In the year 800, Christianity was at least as strong in Asia as it was in Europe.
DAVID: One important thing you do in your book is to quickly explain and then move past all of the complicated doctrinal questions between these Eastern and Southern branches of Christianity. These differences and the various church councils that produced them are important — but you argue in your book that there was far more that united all these churches as Christian than divided them, right?
PHILIP: Yes the distinctions between these branches are much smaller than we give them credit for, particularly with the Nestorians.
DAVID: Sometimes they’re portrayed as heretics and dismissed.
PHILIP: They appear to be much more orthodox than we have portrayed them.
DAVID: OK, before we go further, I need to ask you a question that has popped up in a number of recent books, including those by Deepak Chopra. You’ve written here about the long history of the church in Asia and you talk about the early missionaries who traveled from Jerusalem to build the church there. You don’t talk about Jesus’ life in the book, but tell us in this interview, if you will: What do you say about claims that Jesus himself traveled to India? Deepak Chopra says he likely visited India.
PHILIP: I cannot prove a negative. I cannot prove that Jesus never traveled. But there is absolutely no evidence from the ancient record that he went to India. It seems unlikely that he visited India, because if there had been even the slightest vague memory of an ancient tradition claiming that Jesus visited India — then the Christians living in India would not have claimed that Thomas founded their church. They would have claimed that Jesus founded it. And the tradition about Thomas as founder has distinct, well-known, long-running historical roots.
In the West, the idea that Jesus went to India has been around for more than 100 years, but it’s a recent idea compared with the history of these churches. I don’t want to call the idea nonsense, but there is no ancient evidence for it.
DAVID: I think a good example to highlight from your book is Timothy. In about the year 780, he became the patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East from this Mesopotamian city of Seleucia. This guy was amazing: a deeply spiritual man, skilled in languages, a great historian, a professional colleague of Muslim and Jewish leaders. He had messengers who crossed the known world for him binging news, including news of the first find of some Dead Sea scrolls. He was wise enough to know what to do with these important scrolls. In fact, he knew more about the Bible than most of his Christian colleagues in Europe.
And yet, try to find much about this Timothy today? There’s nothing about him on Wikipedia — only an entry for a different bishop of the same name. The entry on Seleucia indicates that there’s nothing more to say after the year 410. It ends with this line: “This city eventually faded into obscurity and was swallowed by the desert sands, perhaps abandoned after the Tigris shifted its course.”
Tell us about this terrific Christian saint — this cosmopolitan model who worked closely with Muslims and was such a world-class scholar in a time and a place that most of us don’t even know existed.
PHILIP: I like Timothy so much because he was basically a global figure in an age when we don’t expect to find global figures. He left a very substantial correspondence so we know that he dealt with so many different parts of the world. To give you an idea of the importance of issues passing before him on any given day, my favorite line in his papers is this: Oh, I just appointed a metropolitan for the Turks and also for the Tibetans today.
That was just daily business for him. People would ask him about this spiritual practice or that one and they would want to know whether it was appropriate for Christians. Timothy would look around the world and would say: Well, the Indians don’t do this, but the Turks or someone else may do it. And he would make his decision based on this very global view of the church.
He was still in dialogue with Jews and it was Jews near Jericho from whom he learned that someone had tuned up the first cache of what today we call the Dead Sea scrolls. They found this group of jars and at that time Timothy was the right person to ask about them. He knew the questions to ask about such manuscripts. You’ve got to realize that this is an era when, in Europe, no one outside of Jews themselves would even know how to hold a scroll like this. A church leader in Europe wouldn’t know top from bottom on scrolls like these. But Timothy understood what was involved.
DAVID: Tell us about this amazing city where Timothy lived, before his death in 823?
PHILIP: It’s Seleucia, the one known as Seleucia-Ctesiphon today. Here’s the problem with the city’s name. Alexander the Great left his mark on the world and so did a couple of his generals and Seleucius was one of them. They all went crazy naming cities after themselves. There are Seleucias all over from Greece to Pakistan. Kandahar in Afghanistan was originally one of the hundreds of Alexandrias. There were lots of Seleucias mixed in, too. The most important was this city that was in the middle of what is modern Iraq. For a while, this was the largest city on the planet. It was also the capital of the Parthian empire, the other superpower of the day against Rome. It had a huge Jewish community, very cosmopolitan, and it had access to the Silk Road stretching into China. It was a great pivot of the world, a top intellectual center. It was a great eastern rival of Rome and Constantinople.
DAVID: But there’s very little record now.
PHILIP: The Church of the East had very good record keepers and scholars, but not much has survived. We know from what does survive of their records about thousands of books they had available to them, but those books no longer exist — just the references to them. A lot of the science they wrote up and translated into other languages wound up in the Arab world and a lot of what we think of as Muslim scholarship depended on the work that was done in these Christian centers in the East.
DAVID: I was surprised, as well, to learn that women held powerful roles in these “lost” churches. You say that there were women leaders of monastic orders as well as male leaders.
PHILIP: First of all, we’re talking about a very monastic kind of Christianity overall. We are more familiar in the West with the desert fathers, the early monastic leaders. But in Egypt, for example, there also were the desert mothers. There are great traditions of women saints. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about these women, but we do have some selected stories about some of these mothers who are the subjects of great stories. We know that some of them did spiritual guidance both for women and for men. It is absolutely clear that these women were very important in this Christian world.
DAVID: Reading your book, I found myself longing to go back and somehow visit these churches. They embodied what we sometimes refer to today as the “smells and bells” of the existing eastern Orthodox churches, but you write in your book that there was even a great deal more color and liturgical energy and beauty in some of these lost churches’ services.
PHILIP: In Africa and Asia, this was a very five-sense tradition. There isn’t a huge line separating them from what you would get in Orthodox churches. Some of their ideas did spread West. Most of the medieval musical traditions in Europe ultimately came out of Syria into Europe.
What’s interesting to me is that people today like to talk about going back and looking for a primitive kind of Christianity. People keep asking what the apostolic church would have looked like. Well, we had their heirs in the East and they did very well with this for many centuries — but we have forgotten this whole tradition.
DAVID: I keep thinking of a line that Rob Bell likes to use. We’ve had Rob featured in this Conversation format as well. And Rob talks a lot about the church in other countries and the need for Americans not to be blind as they reach out to the rest of humanity. Rob will say: We don’t go on missions to places like Africa to take God to the godless. We go to places like Africa to find the God who is already there.
PHILIP: I hadn’t heard that line before, but I will undoubtedly plagiarize it myself in the future. Yes, when you understand this history, you realize that many of these lands had thriving Christian traditions centuries old.
DAVID: At one point in your book, you flip the world on its head. Americans tend to think of the big weight of Christianity as pretty much residing on our shores now with some important global Christian centers in Rome and in Jerusalem. You write that there was an era when this huge African church looked at the world and assumed that the weight of Christianity really resided in Ethiopia and that the distant global center was Alexandria!
PHILIP: Oh yes, there are great African kingdoms and great African churches we have completely forgotten.
DAVID: You argue that many forces led to the death of these great churches in Africa and Asia. You say that around the late 13th and into the 14th Century, Muslim rulers began to change from their earlier hospitality to violently purging their lands of Christians. In Europe, Christians were doing this to religious minorities, too. And you make an interesting observation about this. You point out that this also is when major climate change was cooling down the earth, a sort of mini ice age. In the early 1300s, warm summers were no longer a sure thing in many of these regions. There was even a Great Famine that swept though Europe in the early 14th Century.
PHILIP: From the late 13th Century, you have this dramatic period of global cooling with equally dramatic implications. Trade roots are hard to maintain, growing seasons are shorter, cities tend to wither and die, people are exposed to hunger and disease. Thirty or 40 years before the black death, we have widespread stories of decline, cities dying, even cannibalism. And when bad things happen, people seem to assume that God is angry with us — and we have to figure out why — and we tend to figure out what particular minority is responsible for God being so angry.
In the Middle East and in China, it’s Christians who become the main scapegoats. Christianity is almost wiped out in China and central Asia and the Middle East. That’s the point at which the patriarchs of Babylon abandon Baghdad and take to the hills. They move to a monastery in northern Iraq.
DAVID: Hmmm. So what you’re describing is: Global crises on the order of climate change begin to reshape the world and things become lethal for many people, especially singled-out minorities. Sounds pretty contemporary.
PHILIP: Well, exactly. I did a New Republic piece earlier this year and I wrote about the effects of global warming on religious interaction. You see this in fights for water supplies already. In Darfur, which is a Muslim vs. Muslim contest, you see this kind of conflict over water playing out and this could easily press more widely. This could move into Egypt where you still have 8 or 10 percent Coptic Christians. It could move into Sudan and Nigeria as the boundary of the desert shifts. That’s where the combat in religion will shift. You have displaced populations. Where will they go?
DAVID: So are you hopeful or are you worried about the future we face?
PHILIP: In terms of Christianity we certainly live in the greatest time of expansion probably in Christian history. I would argue that the geographical-cultural shift of Christianity in the last century is as important a fact in the whole history of Christianity as the Reformation was. The global changes are huge. By 2050, one third of the population of the U.S. will have Latino or Asian roots and overwhelmingly most of those will be Christians and that’s true of Asians as well as Latinos. Last year, there were more Catholic baptisms in the Philippines than in France, Spain and Poland combined.
I think this is an enormously important time for Christianity and I’m generally very optimistic about our ability to cope with religious conflict. Religious conflict will continue but I don’t necessarily see it as something that is irreconcilable if we understand what is happening and the dangers that we face.
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